Friday, December 18, 2015

John Tamny Reviews Common Sense Nation---A Call to Rediscover the Constitution



Whether I agree with all of John Tamny's  review conclusions or those of author Robert Curry remains to be seen. But this I know: I will read and gnaw on this important book in the cold, dark days of January, especially since I think we live in a time of great uncommon sense and a people in mass societal regression. .  There can be no rights for long without responsibilities.
Claremont Institute board member Robert Curry has written a very interesting history of how the Declaration of Independence and Constitution came to be, and how they signaled a 'Big Bang' of the freedom variety.  RealClearMarkets.

By John Tamny
IN A 2014 COLUMN FOR USA Today, HBO host Bill Maher asked readers a rather important question: "How is it that a nation that was never interested in politics has now made everything political?"

My answer at the time was that Americans had no choice but to be political. With the federal government having allocated to itself immense powers that were once the preserve of the cities and states, a non-political electorate had become a distracted one; hyper-focused on the doings within Washington. Go to bed early on election night? We can't anymore, and that's too bad.

Worse, in the lead up to Election 2016 Americans will spend enormous amounts of time reading about politics, more time flattering politicians by watching them on tv, plus they'll contribute billions to political parties and candidates with an eye on influencing the future make-up of the ruling class in Washington. Something's very wrong here. Thankfully there's an excellent new book out that will remind readers how far we've drifted from the Founding Fathers' vision for the United States; this drift arguably the source of an overly-politicized America.

In Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea, the Claremont Institute's Robert Curry impressively lays out the thinking that gave us the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Federalist Papers, and in doing so, reminds us how much better off we'd all be if we had never strayed in the first place. As Victor Davis Hanson puts it in the book's foreword, Curry believes that the "roots and traditions of the Founding Fathers should once again become common knowledge to contemporary Americans." No argument there.

So while Curry's deep knowledge of the Founders' philosophy is made evident throughout, he's not written a book that will be effective only insofar as the Nyquil isn't. Curry inspires the reader with his discussion of the American Idea, but rarely descends into the obscure. As he puts it, Common Sense Nation "only skims the surface, but it aims to do so in a way that reveals the depths." Curry has delivered. Readers of his book will understand the staggering historical importance of what the Founders did.

What needs to be stressed up front is how very fringe or (pardon the pun) revolutionarywere the Founders. Though history may paint them as staid in the serious, sober, elder statesmen sense, America's Founders were different. As Curry describes the creation of the U.S., it was "the most radical attempt to establish a regime of liberty in the entire history of mankind." These men were brilliant, but also the opposite of traditional.

Even more fascinating in light of the largely free present, a present that allows us to say what we want when we want about our elected officials, is what a rare luxury this happens to be in an historical sense. Indeed, while Curry corrects the conventional view that says America's founding documents sprung directly from John Locke, he doesn't diminish the man himself nor his courage.

Curry quotes Locke as writing that "Absolute monarchy is inconsistent with Civil Society," and for words like those Locke had to be "smuggled out of England to safety in Holland." The agents of the King Charles II were in "hot pursuit" of this unabashed lover of liberty. What's important here is that in the 17th century, expressing thoughts of freedom "could be fatal." My how things have changed, and for the better.

In consideration of how bleak and anti-human life used to be, Curry writes that "the Founding can be thought of as a kind of historical Big Bang." So true. A world in which a lack of freedom was the norm suddenly embraced the then foreign concept that for simply being, humans had natural rights. Some of us perhaps take this for granted now, but wow!

Curry stresses throughout that the American Enlightenment emerged from the Scottish one. It was rooted in the moral sense, but also common sense. Curry quotes Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson: "our moral sense is an endowment of our human nature." There's a right and wrong that we quite simply grasp, at which point common sense is the ability to grasp self-evident truths. The greatest self-evident truth is that as human beings, we have infinite rights simply because we exist. These rights were there all along. They're unalienable.

On the subject of the Constitution, Curry observes about the Founders that they "understood our rights to be literally infinite in number." Applied to the Bill of Rights of which the 9th Amendment ("The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.") is a member, Curry makes plain that the all-important 9th "was intended to ensure that enumerating some rights would not have the effect of narrowing our understanding of the vast range of our unalienable rights."

About all of the above there is total agreement, but there are also questions. This reviewer fully accepts Curry's assertion that the 9th and 10th ("The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.") Amendments "make clear the Founders' intent" as applied to our innumerable rights as individuals, along with the highly limited role of the federal government in our daily lives. What was the point of revolution unless this was their intent?

So the question is this: if the 9th is read correctly, shouldn't the Supreme Court have erased any and all limits erected by cities and states in regard to gay marriage? In this instance we're talking about individuals doing something that hurts no one else. Along somewhat similar lines, shouldn't the Affordable Care Act have been struck down for healthcare mandates limiting our natural rights to do as we please, not to mention that healthcare is never enumerated in the Constitution as a federal power?

If powers not delegated to the U.S. automatically revert to the states per the 10th, what are those powers? It's hard to imagine that the Founders intended for mob rule in the states, but it's hard to figure out what powers would revert. Was "Romneycare" legal in Massachusetts based on this question? An otherwise excellent book could have been even more engaging had Curry addressed questions like these.

What about the presumed toxic environment in Washington today? To read the mainstream punditry or watch the television shows which feature those truly inside Washington, the lack of civility between right and left, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat is a bug, not a feature of the present. The Founders would probably disagree with this bit of modern non-wisdom. Curry writes that the Founders "approached their task" of writing the Constitution with conflict and the gridlock that springs from conflict very much in mind. A lack of bipartisanship is what ensures limited damage from the incompetents that invariably migrate to political office.

All of which leads us to the constitutional firewall between church and state. Here Curry exposes both left and right as a little bit, or a lot wrong. To members of the religious right who like to say that the Founders were deeply religious, and as such, not for separation, Curry dismisses this view with ease. Writing about James Madison, he makes plain that what most animated his own desire for revolution was keeping government out of religion. Figure the First Amendment begins with "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..."

At the same time, Curry writes that "today the First Amendment is being used to drive religion out of public life. The Founders would consider that absurd and repellent. The plain meaning of the First Amendment is that there is not going to be a Church of America," not that there wouldn't be churches for all manner of faiths. So the left are wrong, but so are the right about the Founders and religion. It could be argued that precisely because many were deeply religious, they did not want government to have any role in what they deemed good.

Curry spends a lot of time distinguishing between Locke's focus on "property rights" versus the Founders' focus on the "pursuit of happiness." Property rights are interesting insofar as great thinkers like Hernando de Soto argue that a lack of defined property ownership in South America has been the biggest explainer - by far - of South American poverty. But is that true?

Without dismissing the importance of property rights for even a second, Curry's explanation of the American Enlightenment and the founding of the U.S. is very much rooted in moral terms. Per Francis Hutcheson once again "our moral sense is an endowment of our human nature." We would understand right and wrong even without laws. Right and wrong includes respect for other people's property. It's probably the biggest moral virtue of all. Per Matt Kibbe, "don't hurt people and don't take their stuff." All this raises another basic question: is the U.S. rich because of its elevation of property rights, or do we have property rights and wealth because we have morals and common sense already?

Most interesting from an economic angle was Curry's discussion of Adam Smith's "vision of a free market and the Founders' vision of a social order and a system of government befitting a free people..." Like the late Jude Wanniski, Curry is making the essential point that just as markets are smart for them comprising the knowledge of everyone, so are political markets smart. The bigger the country, the more the knowledge? What an interesting topic, particularly if we bring Switzerland and/or Hong Kong into the analysis. Neither is large, but oh my, what wise electorates! Can size in nominal terms sometimes weaken broadly expressed knowledge?

Along similar lines, Curry writes about how "Smith showed that in a free market rivalry improves economic performance, benefiting everyone." Definitely. Curry's innovation comes from marrying Madison's vision to Smith's. Madison felt that rivalry (meaning, a lack of consensus) in politics would "make it less probable that a majority of the whole will. . . invade the property of other citizens." This book will have the reader thinking, and talking.

Areas of possible disagreement concern Curry's assertion that "Top-down systems, economic stagnation, and political repression go together, as history, from pre-Revolutionary France to today's North Korea, endlessly repeats..." The latter is no doubt true, concentrated power surely corrupts, but the potential disagreement has to do with whether the U.S. could ever be anything like North Korea? It seems our Constitution is aneffect of our morals and our common sense. That this is true is but one of many reasons libertarians were so skeptical about the invasion of Iraq. A great founding document and great laws will not necessarily fix dysfunction. The U.S. Constitution emerged from some great men in a country of good people. It says here that it's not necessarily transferrable.

Curry might argue that you can't transfer what you don't understand. That's maybe true, but what didn't much hit home was his certainty about why the people perhaps don't get it anymore; that "Progressive" doctrine has turned the Constitution on its head. Yes it has, but does this speak to the skill of progressive thinkers (or bad educators?) when it comes to changing the debate, or do rich nations generally grow flabby? It seems too convenient to blame what is seemingly obvious. A more intriguing culprit for less robust understanding of our Constitution is prosperity itself. If it has a negative tradeoff, this is it. When we're thriving we perhaps forget about what made human flourishing possible in the first place.

Probably the biggest disagreement (and it's minor) concerns Curry's observation late in the book that today's Democratic Party "rides roughshod over the Constitution," whereas the GOP's dismissal of the document is more noble; perhaps a function of "America's citizens" no longer sharing the "Founders' vision of liberty." In this case an expert on the Constitution like Curry knows well that politicians in both major political parties don't much care at all about it. A non-partisan book didn't need this little bit of partisanship, but if true about the electorate (it no longer venerating the Constitution), this arguably speaks to the importance of more immigration, not less. Indeed, who more than the oppressed would appreciate a document solely meant to protect our rights to live as we want? Wouldn't the arrival of repressed strivers from parts of the world without our Constitution help to revive interest in and respect for it?

Robert Curry has written a great book that will inform those not familiar with the Constitution, and that will spark discussion among those who do. He ends Common Sense Nation on an optimistic note about the "bountiful harvest of progress to be gained" if we rediscover the Constitution. Readers have a book that will spark this prosperity-inducing process.

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